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Forget Reality: Scripts Are In At Cable Nets

1/16/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

Los Angeles— The original scripted-series genre is alive and kicking in cable, as evidenced by the number of new projects shown off for TV critics here last week.

As many as eight networks announced plans to launch new, original scripted programming within the next year at the Television Critics Association Tour.

Stepping into the arena, Oxygen will launch up to two scripted or improvisational original series this year. ABC Family is set to bow either a comedy sitcom or dramatic series this summer. Turner Network Television will add two crime-based skeins. ESPN kicked off its second original series, Tilt, last week, and even the likes of upstart TV One are considering scripted fare.

TV One executive vice president of programming and production Lee Gaither said the African-American targeted network will look to launch originally produced animated and live-action story-based vignettes in 2006, with plans to launch full-fledged scripted series within four years.

Network veterans of the scripted-series genre will bring even more fiction-based series to cable in 2005.

FX said it will launch a fourth dramatic series, as well as two comedy-based shows. USA Network will resurrect the 1970s crime drama Kojak. Sci Fi Channel bowed a souped-up version of the retro series Battlestar Galactica last Friday and Home Box Office will take another stab at Hollywood-based comedy with the Lisa Kudrow-produced series The Comeback.

Viewers have grown weary of the constant onslaught of reality programming on broadcast networks, executives said. They’re ready to embrace quality, if edgy, scripted programming from cable.

'TIME HAS COME’

“Cable’s time has come [for scripted series],” said ABC Family president Paul Lee. His channel has three comedy pilots and one dramatic series in development and expects to launch at least one of the shows by summer.

“The first few years of cable was about launching shows that had shock value, but my take is that the next few years will be about great storytelling,” Lee added.

Showtime Networks Inc. president of entertainment Bob Greenblatt said cable has been the leader in developing unique, quality scripted programming over the past few years, as broadcast networks have focused heavily on reality shows.

With more networks jumping into the scripted pool, he said, cable has the opportunity to maintain its edge.

Showtime itself will offer as many as five series this season, having green-lighted such comedy series as the Kirstie Alley vehicle Fat Actress; Barbershop, based on the hit movie franchise of the same name; and the Parker Posey-starrer Weeds. The premium network will also develop such dramatic series as The Cell, about a Muslim FBI agent who infiltrates a terrorist cell; and Brotherhood, about two brothers on opposite sides of the law.

“If you launch a successful series, you hold them for several months, and then hopefully keep [viewers] for several years,” Greenblatt said. “Series keep on bringing people back.”

For networks like Oxygen, TNT and ESPN, upcoming series will offer more variety to the schedule and bring in new audiences, executives said.

Oxygen is hoping its yet-to-be-announced series — a scripted and improvisational hybrid — will help push the 5-year-old, 54-million-subscriber distaff network to the next level in both ratings and operator carriage, said chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne.

And ESPN has bet that poker-themed Tilt — the network’s second original series after the now-defunct Playmakers — will drive Thursday-night ratings above the 0.6 mark generated by National Hockey League games a year ago, said executive vice president of programming and production Mark Shapiro.

TNT senior vice president of original programming Michael Wright is “enthused” by the performance potential of the network’s two “recurring” crime-based dramas: The Closer, starring Kyra Sedgwick; and Rush, about an elite squad of urban street police.

They are TNT’s first scripted series since it canceled Witchblade three years ago.

Until recently, TNT shunned scripted series because of high development costs — one episode of a scripted series could cost upward of $1 million — and their extremely low success rate, compared with more predictable returns from familiar off-network fare like TNT mainstay Law & Order.

KEEPING COST DOWN

While scripted programming is still expensive, executives said they’re finding ways to become more disciplined in their financial approach to producing scripted fare.

Whether it’s finding less-expensive venues to film shows, cutting back on some costly special effects or curbing the number of episodes per season, executives said the pricey projects have become a bit easier to swallow.

“We’re all getting smarter and doing things more efficiently,” USA and Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer said.

The financial windfall is much greater for a scripted series than for a reality skein. While reality programming may deliver an initial ratings hit, rarely do such programs maintain their ratings prowess for more than a season or two.

Even fewer reality shows have significant value in the syndication or off-network market. But a long-running scripted series can generate substantial revenues for the network that oversees it, as well as in reruns on other networks.

“You can’t get as much [afterlife] bang for the money,” Hammer said. “With scripted series, you have real legs after the show finishes its first run.”

September